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Former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts. (AP Photo)

“Changing the police department to the future Baltimore Police Department, that we have the opportunity to obtain, is going to take time. We’re on the road, we’re making those changes, we’re going in the right direction, and it doesn’t matter whether Tony Batts is here or not, change is happening in the Baltimore Police Department,” said Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts during a sit-down interview with the AFRO on July 2.

Change was indeed happening in the department, at least at the top. On July 8, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Batts and replaced him with new interim commissioner Kevin Davis. The firing came the same day Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 (FOP), Baltimore’s police union, issued an After Action Review Report critical of the commissioner’s leadership during the weeks of unrest in April and May that followed the death of Freddie Gray. The mayor denied the FOP’s report had anything to do with the firing, but called the ongoing focus on Batts’s leadership, as the city struggles to fend off a surge in gun violence and rank and file police officers effectively withdraw from Baltimore’s high crime neighborhoods, a “distraction”, according to the Associated Press.

At a press conference on June 3, a reporter asked Batts whether he agreed with FOP president Gene Ryan that the department was suffering from low morale. “Whether is having a morale issue or not, we have an ethical responsibility to keep this city safe. We have an ethical responsibility to make sure that the nine-year-olds, the seven-year-olds, the babies are not harmed in this city. We have a responsibility,” responded Batts.

It was a plea struggling for an audience. A work slowdown had been seemingly underway for weeks by then, with residents in a number of Baltimore’s high crime neighborhoods observing a diminished police presence amid a surge in gun violence. By June 4, the city suffered 221 non-fatal shootings (97 ahead of last year’s pace on the same date), and 121 homicides (36 ahead), according to an update from the Baltimore Police Department’s media section from that day.

Meanwhile, Batts seemed to be struggling to control his department. Just days before his June 3 plea at the press conference, someone leaked an audio recording to the Baltimore Sun of Batts apologizing to his officers at a union meeting for letting them down during the riots. “From my day when I walked in officer safety’s been job one for me, but I got my hurt and I have to own that . . . that won’t happen again in this organization,” said Batts, according to the recording posted on the Baltimore Sun’s website.

The mea culpa was enough to suggest that Batts was losing the confidence of the rank and file, and the leaking of the audio to the press did little to change that perception. The city continued to see high rates of violence throughout the remainder of June and into July. When Batts sat down to speak with the AFRO on July 2, the city had seen its 144th homicide (45 ahead of the previous year’s count as of that date). Batts seemed to be straddling two commitments seemingly at odds, attempting to embrace both his department and the broader Baltimore community at once.

“The only reason governments or police departments exist is to serve the community in a way that the community expects to be served. If it doesn’t, then it should not exist. Which basically means, people say, ‘Our tax dollars pay you to serve the community,’ and it’s about service, and that is the entire focus. Some people are not comfortable with the that you’re here to serve, but that’s what we are, we’re public servants and we’re providing a service for the customer base,” said Batts about whether policing needs to take its cue from the community.

“At the roots of my being is being a progressive police commissioner. When you become the head of an organization, you don’t have the luxury of taking one side or the other. Your job is to No. 1 defend and support the community but defend and support the police officers that do the job. So my role today is not that of a advocate, my role is that of a chief executive officer of a police organization, and so the roles are different along those lines,” said Batts.

It was a difficult line to tow, especially since the police and the community have been so at odds in Baltimore City, as those weeks of demonstrations beginning April 20th made so apparent. And while Batts stressed that his job was first and foremost to defend and support his officers, the FOP, at least, felt he was doing the opposite.

In the FOP’s after action review of police and city leadership during a large demonstration on April 25, and the rioting that took place on April 27, the union took issue with an op-ed by Batts published on June 19 in the Baltimore Sun, describing it in the following manner: “In an Op-Ed piece for The Baltimore Sun, Commissioner Batts states that more police officers will likely be arrested as a result of the reforms he is undertaking at the Baltimore Police Department. He seems to vilify his officers stating that, ‘The cycle of scandal, corruption, and malfeasance seemed to be continuing without abatement.’”

In linking Batts’s reform effort to the vilifying of officers, the FOP report fails to note that Batts, in the passage cited, was describing the public’s perception of the department prior to his arrival, not his own view of the department. Regardless, the report then goes on to recommend that Batts (and the mayor) “should show public support for the men and women of the Baltimore Police Department.”

The report failed to note that Batts’ op-ed opened with the following paragraph: “Last week I recognized 60 officers and professional staff at the 2015 Medal Day Ceremony. The valor and courage of these men and women, and a few citizen heroes, stands as a testament to the bravery and dedication of most members of the Baltimore Police Department. It reaffirmed my mission and the reason that I am here.”

The FOP’s interpretation of an op-ed that goes out of its way to praise good officers as a vilification speaks to the discord between the commissioner and the rank and file. Any suggestion by Batts that police misconduct ever occurred or that reform of the department might be necessary is being widely received as a lack of support for officers attempting to carry out their duties. It was a perception Batts failed to remedy, despite his attempts.

Unable to get his house in order, and with the city still struggling under the weight of increased gun violence, Batts received his walking papers from the mayor.

Just days before, Batts assured the AFRO that change was happening in the Baltimore Police Department, and that it would continue unabated regardless of his presence. But it was Batts’s attempt to change the department that seemingly cost him the respect of its officers. That statement will now be put to the test, as will Batts’s final comment of the interview.

“ is here . I think it’s exciting. I think there are opportunities. I think our cultural norm in our city we tend to want to focus on pointing fingers a lot, instead of taking the opportunity to grow. Right now at this time . . . two months off of having a major riot within the city, we should be talking about where go future and how we pull this community – how we pull this city together as a whole becomes the bigger piece. And so if I had to say anything is: Don’t waste the opportunity that we have. Corporations change when you have outside trauma . . . We just had outside trauma. It’s time to change, and it’s change as a city as a whole.”

ralejandro@afro.com